SOUTH LOOP — Like any child on her birthday, Francesca Varias would receive a handful of cards filled with good wishes.
But she couldn't understand any of the messages.
"I would pretend to read the cards, and I was pretty good at faking it," said Francesca, of Wicker Park, now a senior soccer star at Jones College Prep. "I was sad most of the time because no one understood what I was going through."
As a second-grader at Near North Montessori, Francesca was diagnosed with dyslexia. For much of the next seven years, she spent two days a week with Maggie Rouman, a learning specialist at the school, figuring out how to read.
"Even though initially reading was very difficult, and she didn't have the patience and confidence to read short books, she worked hard to improve her skills and put in a lot of effort," Rouman said. "She is bright and determined and always wanted to be successful. ... When she graduated, she had an 'A' average."
Said Francesca: "I was always working hard to catch up. I kind of got this mentality that if I didn't work as hard as I can, I would fall behind."
That drive spread to the soccer pitch, where she has been a standout player since age 4. She was named the Eagles' MVP the last two seasons and is a co-captain in her final year.
Jones College Prep's sixth-year head coach Derek Bylsma, who played at Wisconsin and professionally for the Milwaukee Wave, an indoor soccer team, said the moment he met Francesca as a freshman, he knew she would become one of the best players he would ever direct.
"She has a rare combination of being a really gritty player who has great skills," Bylsma, of the South Loop, said of Francesca, who has 30 goals and 35 assists in her Jones career.
That's despite Francesca playing the defensive sweeper position as a freshman. She's been a midfielder the last two years and will remain at that spot as a senior, said Bylsma, whose team begins its season March 18 against Farragut Academy at Marquette Park.
Chicago Public League soccer is divided into five divisions, with Premier League at the top. Jones was a tier below in the first division last year, but that didn't stop Francesca from being named to the all-city team — the only non-Premier League player to earn that honor.
Bylsma said Francesca easily could compete at the Division I level in college, but she chose Division III Grinnell College in Iowa because it's similar to the small-school atmosphere of Near North Montessori and Jones College Prep.
Both schools have programs that allow Francesca to have extra time for test-taking, as she still struggles with dyslexia. An example of how she reads and writes words is she'll see or scribe "puppet" as "bubbet" or "bed" as "deb." Francesca said if she isn't patient, she'll write down the incorrect words most of the time.
"I'll also flip numbers in math, which is really annoying," she said.
That hasn't prevented her from compiling a 3.8 GPA at Jones or scoring a 31 on her ACT. At Grinnell, Francesca said she wants to major in either biology or physics. She wants to be a heart surgeon.
When told of the rigors of medical school, including the endless hours of reading, Francesca took things in stride. Her favorite book is "Stiff" by Mary Roach, which details the science of cadavers in a light, humorous way.
Francesca said the best part of overcoming dyslexia is being able to read for pleasure. Being able to read those birthday cards has been an added bonus.